Editor’s Note: Mark Driscoll is Head of the Sustainable Food Programme at Forum for the Future, an international non-profit organization that promotes sustainable development. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
How can we feed nine billion people enough protein in a way which is affordable, healthy and good for the environment?
That’s a tough question and the answers are not simple, but a unique coalition of businesses, academics, civil society organizations and government bodies have come together to try to find them through the Protein Challenge 2040 initiative.
Today, protein is in the spotlight as never before. It’s fundamental to human health, but the way we currently grow and eat it is placing a heavy strain on the health of our planet and our bodies.
In the face of a growing proportion of the world eating meat-based diets, a continually rising global population, and the projected impacts of climate change, the Protein Challenge 2040 believes we must take action now.
Too much protein goes to livestock
We live in a crazy world where over 50 percent of good-quality plant protein grown (wheat, soya etc), which could be fed to humans, is fed to animals.
Added to this, a good proportion of wild-caught fish is fed to farm animals and fish. The protein system is over-dependent on soy for animal feed, and the cultivation of soy in turn drives deforestation.
So it’s not simply enough to find more sustainable ways of growing a crop; it’s also about finding alternatives and tackling demand.
But the picture is complex. Some of us eat more than sufficient protein; nearly 2 billion people are overweight or obese. Others face a serious lack of protein, with over 700 million people suffering from hunger.
Both sets of circumstances are associated with major health risks. Some protein has more nutritional value than others, and some, particularly meat-based proteins, are resource-intensive and create many harmful planetary impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, heavy water consumption and the destruction of precious habitats around the world.
More protein from plants
Whilst we don’t pretend to have all the answers, following comprehensive research and two years of engagement with over 200 stakeholders, the international Protein Challenge 2040 team, facilitated by international sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, is working on three areas for action.
We believe that a ‘systemic’ approach, which means addressing multiple areas at the same time, is needed to reach the scale of impact we need.
Our first focus is on increasing the proportion of plant-based proteins within our diets and increasing the range of tasty options available.
In the West, we consume far too much animal protein, and demand is also growing exponentially in developing countries, such as China and India.
But it’s not easy if you’re looking to change your diet; often, menus are focused on meat as the star of the dish and the ‘vegetarian’ options are light on protein, not to mention boring to eat. We are working with chefs, food service companies and schools to develop more plant-based recipes, menus and products, so that there is a much wider range of delicious, sustainable protein options available for people outside of their homes.
Sustainable animal feed
We are also looking at making animal feed much more sustainable.
Over the last 60 years, farmed cattle, chickens, pigs and fish have increasingly been fed on grains, soy and fishmeal. Many of these feedstocks are high-quality sources of protein that could be used to feed humans, particularly in places where protein deficiency is common.
Additionally, the use of fish as animal feed puts pressure on our ocean ecosystems. Developing new sources of animal feed (insects, grasses, legumes etc) is critical. We are also working with the feed industry to develop an easy-to-use tool which can guide them towards making better choices by making the kind of information that they need to make good choices visible and easy to understand.
Lastly, we’re working hard to reduce food waste across the protein system.
Globally, 30% of all food produced is wasted, much of which could be converted into useful protein sources. We are exploring new ways to help small start- ups to reduce the protein wasted and re-use the protein wasted so it can be reused create new products which can be fed to humans.
In the 21st century, not only do we confront and ecological crisis, but we face a public health crisis when it comes to food security.
Protein goes to the heart of these issues. Collaboration is key to finding the solutions we need, and the Protein Challenge 2040 initiative is a great place to start.